After all, America is an open society, in which everyone is free to make his or her own choices about where to work and how to live.
Everyone, that is, except the 30 million workers now covered by noncompete agreements, who may find themselves all but unemployable if they quit their current jobs; the 52 million Americans with pre-existing conditions who will be effectively unable to buy individual health insurance, and hence stuck with their current employers, if the Freedom Caucus gets its way; and the millions of Americans burdened down by heavy student and other debt.
The reality is that Americans, especially American workers, don’t feel all that free. The Gallup World Survey asks residents of many countries whether they feel that they have “freedom to make life choices”; the U.S. doesn’t come out looking too good, especially compared with the high freedom grades of European nations with strong social safety nets.
While some Americans are convinced that life in the U.S. represents the acme of personal freedom, in practical reality, it often doesn’t. Especially when it comes to finding and keeping paid work.
When you move to the U.S. from a nation with a stronger social safety net, let alone one with powerful unions and laws protecting workers, the lack of government oversight here is shocking.
To name only one example, many states legally only offer “at will” employment: a company can fire you at a second’s notice for no reason at all, with no severance. People who’ve worked for years, or decades, can be out on the street with nothing but six months’ unemployment benefits to get them, they pray, to the next job; New York State benefits are only $1,600 a month, (taxable income), less than the monthly rent for a tiny Manhattan apartment.
Few nations are as obsessed with the words freedom, liberty and justice — yet Americans’ muscular free-market capitalism and high-spending lobby groups who fight daily on Capitol Hill to protect the wealthy and their corporate interests ensure that the playing field is very far from level.
Some of the many challenges facing American workers include:
Virtually no vo-tech training or government/business partnerships to train, or re-train blue-collar workers into well-paid and badly-needed jobs requiring technical skills. Unlike, say, Germany.
The cost of college or training is too often crippling, even out of reach. When a college degree, let alone certifications to work in technical fields, is unattainable, frustrating, dead-end, low-wage service work looms.
If you desperately need affordable health insurance for you and/or your family, you may take and cling to a job you hate, in an industry you wish to flee but can’t — because market-rate health insurance is unavailable or, if unsubsidized by your employer, unaffordable.
The three-chair hair salon I use, its self-employed owner bedeviled by ever-rising rents, Grove St., New York City
Unions are weak, and the smallest they’ve been in American history. With fewer union members than ever, amidst tremendous income inequality, no one is there to fight, collectively, for workers’ rights and needs. When every man has to fight for himself, it pits individuals against one another — a great way to distract us all from how the rich are getting richer and too many of us are getting nowhere.
Non-compete clauses. Here’s a study that found even lower-level employees are getting caught in these snares, sometimes preventing them from finding work in their field for years. Once you leave an employer, having signed one of these, possibly under duress, you’re stuck with skills and experience you can’t use. Fair? Nope.
My husband and I both work full-time freelance, self-employed creatives; he’s a photo editor and I’m a writer and writing coach. We pay $1,800 a month for our health insurance — a sum ensuring healthy profits for the company selling it since we’re both, for now, in excellent health.
It’s the cost of self-employment.
The millions of us now working without a corporate safety net — no paid sick days, no paid vacation days, no family medical leave, no maternity leave — have no public policies to address our specific needs.
We earn less than we probably would in full-time staff jobs, but we’re also free from a tiring and expensive daily rail commute into New York, office dramas or emails at 2:00 a.m. demanding an immediate reply.
Our greatest freedom is deciding who to work with — and whom to avoid.
Since most of us will spend most of our lives working, we hope to find satisfaction in it, when possible, beyond income.
It’s shocking, and sad, that so few Americans enjoy what they do for a living; every new Gallup poll finds a majority of them, two-thirds, “disengaged” — a state of affairs that leads to endless, tedious screeds on LinkedIn and Twitter about how to “engage” your staff.
If you hate what you do all day, you’re unlikely to do it well.
That photo above is of one of Jose’s credentials; he’s been working freelance with the United States Golf Association for a few years now.
He got the job thanks to a few introductions, (and his excellent skills!) The man loves golf. Now they fly him across the U.S. to photo edit their major tournaments.
I lost my fancy newspaper job in 2006 and freelancing was going poorly. So, in September 2007 I took a part-time job as a sales associate, for $11/hr and no commission, at a local mall.
Long past my teenage years, I was the oldest member of our 15-person team, including our manager and assistant manager.
Initially, I really liked the job.
And yet it’s a job everyone knows is nasty — crappy pay, no challenge, tedious and repetitive.
Any job, if you enjoy elements of it, can make you happy
My fancy newspaper job had actually been a year of misery, (details tedious), the most difficult experience of my career.
So being once more liked, accepted, even welcomed — albeit into a low-wage, low-status part-time job, healed me. No one was trying to force me out. No one refused to speak to me if I said “hello” to them.
I was good at selling, able to relate easily to a wide range of customers, from the emissary for an Arabian prince to Finnish bankers to a Boy Scout. I loved the variety of people who shopped in our store, (The North Face), and being able to help them.
When you emerge from a job, no matter how prestigious or well paid, where nothing you ever do is deemed good enough, simply being able to please someone is a real solace.
It was for me.
Working retail also allowed me to use my French and Spanish skills occasionally, sharing travel tips with shoppers who were buying a backpack to train across Europe or a suitcase to go to Peru, places I’d been to and could discuss helpfully.
Every job, even the most putatively glamorous you can think of, has elements you will probably never love — highly-paid actors often loathe the press junkets and conferences and interviews they have to do to promote their films. They just want to act!
First, make sure you choose a career or project that you enjoy pursuing, one that offers present benefits for you. Keep in mind that unless you find small pleasures in your daily routine, you will not stick to it.
Second, add present benefits to your working hours. Listen to music, make friends and break the routine with social activities. Do whatever makes you happy at work; you can stick to your career goals longer if your work is enjoyable in the moment.
Third, bring to mind those present benefits that do exist at your work. Maybe you just have not been paying attention to them…You can similarly motivate yourself to engage in your work by directing attention to the positive aspects of your tasks.
As I write this, I’m wearing a sweatshirt and leggings, no make-up, hair unbrushed, listening to classical music on the radio aloud, (no need for headphones.)
I don’t have to get dressed or waste hours commuting, crammed into a crowded train or traffic or subway, leaping pools of icy water and slush.
I don’t have to pretend to like mean co-workers or a bullying boss.
I’ll go to the gym when it suits me, or go for a walk, or (rarely) even go to an afternoon movie. The freedom to set my schedule matters enormously to me.
I usually eat all three meals at home, saving time, money and calories. My husband is home today as well, sorting through a mountain of 2016 receipts to make sure we get every possible tax deduction from our combined freelance incomes.
Do I enjoy my work?
Yes, I do. But I also clearly enjoy the conditions in which I perform it.
What do I still love about writing, editing and teaching?
— Meeting and speaking with an amazing array of people, from Queen Elizabeth to convicted felons to Olympic athletes.
— At best, working with smart, tough editors and clients who expect high levels of skill and emotional intelligence.
— Finding and sharing complex stories with millions of readers.
— Learning something new with every story I write, whether pension reform, utility deregulation, air turbulence, Broadway stagehand work or apotropaic traditions in house construction.
— Connecting worldwide with fellow writers, some of whom are generous enough to share referrals and clients with me (and vice versa.)
— Meeting smart younger writers through my blog and Twitter.
Today, thousands of Americans rush out to start their holiday shopping. It’s called Black Friday because it’s the beginning of the season that pushes retailers into the black — i.e. profitability.
While shoppers clamor for more product, more discounts and even more hours in which to spend their money, please pause to remember the hard-working people who serve them, since 70 percent of the American economy is created by consumer spending.
Retail workers also deserve more:
— More money (most earn minimum wage)
— More respect (until you’ve served them, it’s hard to believe how rude and nasty some shoppers can be)
— More hours (store managers scrimp on paid hours because every other cost is already spent)
— More opportunities for raises, bonuses and promotions into a decent wage. (No worker adding profits to the bottom line should be so fiscally punished)
Here’s my op-ed in today’s New York Daily News, America’s sixth-largest newspaper and the last newsroom in which I worked as a reporter.
In a time of growing income inequality, no one should assume that retail staff are uneducated or have no higher ambition than folding T-shirts for hours. RAP also found that more than 50% of them either have a college degree or are working toward one.
Some, like our store manager Joe, who fought with U.S. Special Forces in Mogadishu, have served their country overseas. And some enjoy retail work and consider it a meaningful career choice.
For others, it’s a stopgap, a place to earn a wage while awaiting a better-paid opportunity. One multi-lingual young lawyer I know recently made the move from folding T-shirts at the Gap to working at a major investment house, the fortunate culmination of a lengthy and frustrating job search.
These workers deserve and demand more respect and better economic treatment.
As some of you may know, a frenzied crowd of shoppers trampled a 34-year-old Walmart associate. Jdimytai Damour — in his first week on the job on Long Island, NY — to death in 2008.
Sitting on appeal with a review commission, the case of Jdimytai Damour’s death highlights how corporations can choose to fend off modest penalties over workplace dangers for years on end, according to occupational health experts.
For a company with sales of $466 billion last fiscal year, the $7,000 fine from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration represents little more than a single store’s rounding error. Walmart would have vastly outspent that sum simply in legal fees devoted to fighting the penalty. But the world’s largest retailer is less concerned with the monetary fine than with the broader implications of the case. A negative ruling could compel Walmart and other retail companies like it to take additional safety precautions for workers or face new liabilities.
“It’s not about the penalty,” said Celeste Monforton, a former OSHA analyst who’s now a lecturer at George Washington University. “It’s this interest in seeing how far Walmart can push back against the decision.”
I’m aware that for some people — including readers here — Walmart offers low prices and may be the only shopping choice in their area. I will never ever shop there.
I worked part-time, from 2007 to 2009, at an upscale mall near my home in suburban New York selling for The North Face, costly outdoor clothing manufactured — as most apparel now is — in low-wage nations across the globe, from Peru to China. I earned $11/hour, with no commission, for a job that demanded devoted attention to 14 simultaneous tasks, from spotting shoplifters (no store security staff) to scrubbing the toilets. We were given daily sales goals. The lowest was $400, the highest — during the holidays — $6,000.
It was the hardest job I’ve ever done. I’m glad I did it. I’ve never seen the world the same way since then.
It showed me a sort of corporate brutality I could never (naively) have imagined had I not stepped behind the cash wrap. Shoppers assumed we were stupid, uneducated, unable to get or keep any other sort of work, when many of us had lost much better-paid jobs in the recession. Or we were going to college, and/or supporting a family.
Yet the word most industry experts use to describe these workers?
Retail work is the largest source of new jobs in the U.S., yet most of them — part-time, with very few hours and no benefits — pay such low wages that workers end up using food stamps to supplement their meager incomes. Enough already with corporate welfare!
LAST CHANCE TO SIGN UP FOR THIS WEEK’S WEBINAR — “CRAFTING THE PERSONAL ESSAY”. CLASS SIZE IS SMALL, SO EVERY STUDENT RECEIVES INDIVIDUAL ATTENTION.
THERE’S PRE-CLASS READING FOR THIS ONE, SO IF YOU’RE INTERESTED, DON’T DELAY!
Among the 100 million people in this country who hold full-time jobs,
about 70 percent of them either hate going to work or have mentally
checked out to the point of costing their companies money — “roaming the
halls spreading discontent,” as Gallup reported. Only 30 percent of
workers are “engaged and inspired” at work.
At first glance, this sad survey is further proof of two truisms. One,
the timeless line from Thoreau that “the mass of men lead lives of
quiet desperation.” The other, less known, came from Homer Simpson by
way of fatherly advice, after being asked about a labor dispute by his
daughter Lisa. “If you don’t like your job,” he said, “you don’t strike,
you just go in there every day and do it really half-assed. That’s the
The American way, indeed. Gallup’s current survey,
covering two years, is a follow-up to an earlier poll that found much
the same level of passive discontent from 2008 to 2010. Even in an
improving economy, people are adrift at work, complaining about a lack
of praise, with no sense of mission, and feeling little loyalty to
Not surprisingly, the primary reason that people hate their jobs is their boss — who ignores them, bullies them, or undermines them. Sad, considering how many of us spend most of our time at work.
I was very lucky, in my first newspaper job at the Globe and Mail, to have the best boss ever. None has ever matched his rare combination of high standards, praise when warranted, low-key style and, best of all, someone who kept offering me terrifyingly difficult and unfamiliar assignments — which always ended up on the front page of that national paper.
New York journalism? Not so much, sorry to say.
A few of my tormentors bosses here:
— The woman editor-in-chief at a medical trade magazine who shouted curses at everyone, even across our large open-plan office space. She stood Tokyo-subway-rush-hour close to me, her pupils strangely dilated — (heavy anti-psychotic medication? need of same?) — and shouted at me. One day I closed a phone interview with a brief chat, while she shrieked, (and he could hear every word): “I told you never to have personal conversations at work!” I finally asked a co-worker how she put up with it all. Her secret? Anti-depressants.
— The male editor-in-chief of another trade magazine who came into my small, narrow office to verbally hammer me with his disappointment in my work. I told him truthfully, as calmly and politely as possible, I was doing the best I knew how. He’d hired me into a senior job for which I simply did not have the skills, as my resume made clear. “Define best!” he snarled.
— The male editor who, when I asked him to have lunch to discuss how I was doing in my new job, about six months in, sneered: “I don’t take lunch. When I want to speak to you, I’ll let you know.” (I was then 48.)
As many of you know by now, more than 377 men and women making clothing for companies like Primark, JC Penney, Benetton and others, were killed two days ago in the collapse of a factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Here’s part of the story from The New York Times:
Thousands of people surrounded the site on Sunday, watching the huge rescue operation, even as hopes faded that many more victims would be found alive. For nearly 12 hours, rescuers tried to save a trapped woman, lowering dry food and juice to her as they carefully cut through the wreckage trying to reach her. But then a fire broke out, apparently killing the woman, leaving many firefighters in tears.
With national outrage boiling over, Bangladeshi paramilitary officers tracked down and arrested Sohel Rana, the owner of the building, who was hiding near the Indian border, and returned him by helicopter to Dhaka. When loudspeakers at the rescue site announced his capture earlier in
the day, local news reports said, the crowd broke out in cheers.
The collapse of the building, the Rana Plaza, is considered the deadliest accident in the history of the garment industry. It is known to have claimed at least 377 lives, and hundreds more workers are
thought to be missing still, buried in the rubble.
The Rana Plaza building contained five garment factories, employing more than 3,000 workers, who were making clothing for European and American consumers.
It is worth reading the story because the accompanying photo is so heartbreaking, and one is horribly familiar to any New Yorker — it is a wall with posters and photos of missing workers, posted by their loved ones, seeking them. After the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11, struck down by two jet airliners, there was an equally feverish, often insane, hope that the thousands of workers trapped in those buildings might have escaped alive.
Some did. Many did not.
But their posters were plastered all over the city. They were truly “Wanted” posters, but too often in vain. You could not look at them, even if you knew no one affected, and not want to weep.
It is hard to know what, if anything, one can usefully say about this Dhaka disaster, the largest (so far) such industry accident in history:
— That the workers were very far away from the people who buy and wear the clothes they make
— That they earn, on average, $37 a month
— That they are completely without political and economic power since this industry is essential to the nation’s economy
— Find out which manufacturers, (if possible), were sub-contracting work to Rana, and Tazreen, site of another major Bangladeshi garment factory fire that killed 112 workers and boycott all their products
— And spread the word through social media
Here’s a story about Aminul Islam, who tried to organize Bangladeshi garment factory workers.
Hubby left and again, he had to stop off at the gas station to fill up his car. He drives around 150 miles per day for his job. And yes! he drives a fuel efficient car that gets between 35 and 40mpg. But it’s not working out like we planned. With the cost of gas at over $4.15 a gallon (and still rising) and the tightness of available money, it’s becoming a nightmare, with no end in sight.
While at the gas pump, the woman in the next booth came over to my husband and asked him if he had any money to give her. “I need money to buy gas” she said “to get to work. I don’t have any money to buy gas to get to work nor even come back from work and get home. Do you have any money to give me, man?” DH then realized the reality of our own financial predicament. He told the woman that he had just been fighting with his own wife over the tightness of money and our own inability to buy food and gas and pay looming tax bills.
“The only money I have that I can give you is this dollar bill,” he said and handed the woman the paper dollar bill I found in the parking lot yesterday.
I had breakfast the other morning, (total cost $11.00 for both, plus $1.00 for parking), with a friend who is single and freelancing and faces monthly living costs of $4,000; just her rent and health insurance is $2,000 every month. She has no savings anymore, having won and lost several jobs in our field over the past few years.
She has worked her whole life, like me, in journalism, and at 58 knows that the odds of finding a new full-time job that allows her to meet her living costs and save for retirement are slim-to-none.
Going back to college? For her, financially impossible. Taking some sort of quick, cheap credential? Maybe — but, really, given a choice of a 30, 40 or 58-year-old, who’s going to hire someone that age?
For millions of hard-working, educated, skilled and experienced Americans, a hand-to-mouth existence is the new normal. Especially those over the age of 50.
Matt Ides has a doctorate in history and extensive teaching experience. Unable to find a full-time, tenure-track job, he took an adjunct teaching position at Eastern Michigan University, where he was paid $3,500 per class. He taught five classes one semester and four the next. One more class and the university would have had to consider him a full-time employee under university policy.
If not for his girlfriend’s salary, he said, “I would have had to live in a one-room apartment and eat soup every day.”
I moved to the U.S. in January 1988. As a brand-new driver, I was exquisitely attuned to the costs of owning, insuring and fueling a vehicle. Gas, then, cost 89 cents a gallon — today, it’s between $3.90 and $4.15 or more.
The price of groceries has shot through the roof. The cost of commuting to New York City, a daily necessity for my husband who works there, and for me to meet with clients and actually enjoy Manhattan occasionally, just rose, again, by 10 percent.
Jose and some others at his workplace are represented by a union, initially offered a 0 percent (yes) raise by his employer, The New York Times. They won a fat 2 percent a year — and the Times is considered, by some, a career pinnacle, a place you work long and hard to achieve.
I recently pulled out some old paperwork, and found an invoice from 1997 — 16 years ago — for $900. I just accepted an assignment last week from the Times for $900.
Nothing, anywhere — shoes, clothes, food, gas, insurance, dental bills, haircuts — costs what it did 16 years ago. Anyone attending university in the U.S. knows this firsthand, as tuition costs have skyrocketed, while incomes are stagnant and jobs hard to find.
Here’s the story of a graduate student at Duke, (named for the tobacco fortune family who founded it), who lived in a van in a parking lot so he could actually afford school. In a van.
Few of us are less educated, more stupid, more lazy or unwilling to work hard than we were 10 or 15 or 20 years ago.
I’ve thought about moving far upstate, where we could probably buy an old house for cash and pay very little in property taxes. Socially? Death. Professionally, nothing would be there for my husband, who makes almost three times what I do. Making an even longer commute — with less time for himself and for us? Not a great option either.
So, moving isn’t really a smart choice. Neither Jose or I, (both award-winning veterans in our field), have advanced degrees, so no teaching jobs are open to us, even as a poorly-paid adjunct.
I had lunch recently with an editor who did exactly that, moved to the Catskills with her husband and baby. She lasted two miserable, lonely, broke years and now lives back in Manhattan.
We could, I suppose, go to a much smaller, rural place somewhere very far away in the Midwest — distant from our friends, colleagues, neighbors and social networks. But I tried rural life, for 18 months when I was 30. Sorry, for those who thrive on it, I hated it, never so lonely, broke and miserable in my life. Unless in that other place you have dear friends, loving family and/or steady work that will really help you thrive, I don’t see much appeal in moving anywhere else at this point.
And every day, right over my head, I hear the sound of income inequality — as a helicopter thud-thud-thuds across the sky very close to my balcony. It’s a Rockefeller, flying to work in Manhattan, 25 miles south; their huge, gated estate lies about a 10-minute drive north of our town.
You have to love a company that makes it abundantly clear to workers — you’re overpaid! At $19 an hour, those employed at an upstate New York plant making Mott’s apple juice have been told they earn too much.
This, in comparison to other area production workers near Rochester, many of them desperate for work after layoffs by Xerox or Kodak, former corporate behemoths.
The company is doing just fine.
It’s not in bankruptcy, or struggling, or cut to its knees by competition from China or India. No, they posted $555 million in income for 2009, compared to a $312 million loss the year before.
They just want more profit! Because…they can.
So, in a gesture almost touching in its quaint futility — sort of a whaling captains’ convention — the workers went out on strike in May. They’re still there, reports The New York Times’ terrific labor reporter Steven Greenhouse.
The company cut its annual picnic and holiday party — but also wanted a $1.50/hour wage cut, pension freeze and other concessions.
The plant, of course, is running with scab labor. In this economy, they can certainly count on finding willing bodies happy to make sure the plant’s workers have little leverage.
If it doesn’t wake you up, you’re not paying attention.
Few reporters even bother to cover “labor” anymore, instead preferring business profiles about CEOs or Wall Street analysts.
Workers? Not so much.
Now that corporate executives earn 300 times their lowest-paid workers, when — exactly — is enough profit enough?
From The Times’ story:
“Companies have asked for concessions throughout the history of the labor movement because they’ve faced hard times and needed help to survive,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents the Mott’s workers. “Dr Pepper Snapple is different. They don’t even show the respect to lie to us. They just came in and said, ‘We have no financial need for this, but we just want it anyway because we figure we can get away with it.’ ”
Negotiations have not been held since May, and Dr Pepper Snapple says it has no intention of resuming them. The company has continued to operate the plant using replacement workers and says that production of apple juice and apple sauce is growing each day. Union officials say production is one-third of what it was before the walkout.
The Mott’s workers voted 250 to 5 to strike, walking out on May 23. They were furious about the company’s demands to cut their wages by about $3,000 a year, freeze pensions, end pensions for new hires, reduce the company’s 401(k) retirement contributions and increase employees’ costs for health care benefits. Dr Pepper Snapple said it was merely seeking to bring its benefits more in line with those of its other plants.
Once a week, I put on an official shirt and shoes, loop a lanyard around my neck with a little plastic badge with my first name carved into it, and go sell merch for The North Face, an international chain of outdoor clothing, with 23 stores in the U.S. I was hired there September 25, 2007 and did it to earn some extra, steady cash, to get out of my suburban apartment and the relentless isolation of working alone at home all day, with no kids or dog for distraction and company. I’d never worked retail in my life. Never had to, never had a huge desire to. But it’s paid work and I am now lucky to have it.
I make a fat $11/hr., no commission. Last week, in my seven hour shift, I moved $3,650 worth of product, $521.42 worth per hour. No one said “Thanks! Great job!” or high-fived me. I went home, showered, went to bed.
Every week, I think, OK, it’s time to quit. The work is not terribly interesting and the learning curve flattened out a long time ago.
Then, every week, yet another magazine or newspaper — my primary source of income for the past few decades — closes, cans its staff, cuts its freelance budget, tossing hundreds more competitors into the pot for the dwindling amount of freelance work available. I read there are six extremely well-qualified applicants for any available full-time job. So, I stay.
I spoke to my manager today — after reading today’s Wall Street Journal story about how retailers (surprise) will be cutting back on labor this holiday season and hiring fewer temporary workers. He asked if I could work some more hours in November and I said yes. I had planned to add hours in December, when the store will really need veterans who know our stuff and our team. In this economy, any steady work is a rare and valuable commodity. So is someone who knows how to do their job well, certainly the physically tiring job of retail sales.
I went shopping yesterday in Manhattan and came home fuming with the incompetence I saw in almost every store. At Sephora, where I wanted to enjoy finally cashing in a gift card, two of the associates did not speak English and I had to cross the store in search of help. In the worst recession in this nation in 40 years, I actually do expect competent help from anyone who still has a paycheck when millions do not. Silly me.
And firing someone in this economy can make for a terrifying, ugly scene. Our manager finally let someone go from our staff — who returned the next day and made physical threats. My partner was in a local Staples last week and watched a young man, just fired there, shrieking obscenities at the top of his lungs at every manager in sight. This went on until the police came.
I find this economy confusing, these behaviors both understandable — and mystifying. If even the crummiest jobs are so hard to win and so deeply coveted, why not do them really well?